It goes without saying that Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata are India’s heavyweights—the cities that the majority of travellers arrive in when they visit the colourful and compelling sub-continent. There are, however, many overlooked cities which are equally deserving of as much attention as ‘The Big Three’. Here’s a round-up of some of India’s lesser-known cities, each of them with an abundance of culture and character of their own.
Leh, the old capital of Ladakh, is surrounded by fast-flowing rivers, Buddhist monasteries, and the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. Often referred to as the last Shangri-La, saffron-robed monks amble along ancient streets, white stupas are festooned with prayer flags, and travellers hang out in the many cafés and restaurants.Climb the steps to Leh Palace, the city’s most imposing landmark, which offers impressive views of Leh and beyond. Although largely in ruins, the interior is decorated with Tibetan art, thangkas, and ceremonial costumes. Before descending, continue walking the dusty narrow path up to Tsemo Gompa, where a large gold Buddha sits inside the temple room. It’s a peaceful spot—prayer flags flutter in the breeze and there are spectacular views over the Indus Valley.
Afterwards, explore the 17th-century crumbling mud-brick buildings of the old town. The area is a labyrinth of fascinating alleyways and the Jama Masjid, with its striking dome, is the largest mosque in Ladakh. Enjoy a cup of the best coffee in town and slice of cake in Lala’s Art Café, a former monk’s home with oodles of atmosphere and a tiny roof terrace.The Tibetan Market is run by refugees and is the perfect spot to pick up a souvenir or two. Situated under a huge tent, there are tables brimming with masks, trinkets, clothes, and Buddhist paraphernalia. The city’s bustling bazaar, where you can buy pretty much everything under the sun, is also a great place to bag a bargain.
Built by Japanese Buddhist monks to promote world peace, the beautiful gleaming white Shanti Stupa situated on Anadu Hill is a 500-step climb. Sunset is the best time to visit to enjoy the glow across the distant mountain peaks.For dinner, you can’t beat Bon Appetit. Although it’s at the end of a confusion of narrow lanes and a little difficult to locate, it’s worth the effort. The multi-cultural menu and tandoori grills hit the spot and the patio has stunning views across the Stok Mountains.
Getting there: The Manali-Leh highway is one of the most spectacular roads in the world and takes about 20 hours to traverse. The road is only open between June and October due to snow during the rest of the year. Alternatively, Leh is connected to Delhi and other Indian cities by air.
Getting around: It’s easy to get around town on foot and taxis can be used to visit attractions outside the city centre.
Weather: The best time to visit Leh is between June and August when the weather is at its most pleasant at an average of 25 degrees Celsius during the day. Snow throughout the winter months means that many roads are inaccessible.
Otherwise known as Cochin, this historical port overlooks the Arabian Sea in Kerala, South India. A base for the spice trade since ancient times, Kochi is still a major exporter of spices. Fort Kochi is the oldest and most attractive area of the city and is the focal point for tourists. With Dutch, Portuguese, and British influence from colonial times, the architecture is a fascinating hotchpotch of styles and the aroma of spices waft through the air.Tempting restaurants, craft shops, and Ayurvedic spas line the main drag of Princess Street and nearby Jew Town teems with antique stores. Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the largest contemporary arts festival in Asia, has taken place in Kochi every two years between December and March and is a great time to visit the city.
Make tracks to Kashi Art Café, which is tucked away on a backstreet and offers homemade granola, pancakes, and other treats for breakfast. The café buzzes with atmosphere and the décor is a blend of traditional Keralan and modern art. Take a post-breakfast stroll by the sea and watch fishermen pull in their catch using Chinese fishing nets which date back to the 15th century.It’s an interesting three-kilometre walk to historical Jew Town. On route, you pass numerous spice shops and also have the opportunity to take a glimpse inside the Portuguese church of St. Francis. Built in 1503, it’s one of the oldest European churches in India. It’s also worth taking a look inside the Dutch-built Mattencherry Palace, which has portraits of the maharajas, old Dutch maps, murals, and period furniture on display.
As its name suggests, Jew Town once had a large Jewish population whose heritage is evident from the small Paradesi Synagogue. There are lots of shopping opportunities in the surrounding streets and the area is known for its antique stores and old-world charm.Finish your trip to Jew Town with dinner at Ginger House, a lovely waterfront restaurant which features authentic Keralan cuisine, as well as Chinese and Continental. Eating here is akin to being in a museum as the restaurant is decorated with antiques, from the furniture to the artwork adorning the walls.Round off the evening with a performance of Kathakali, a classical Keralan dance involving vibrant costumes, intricate make-up, and skilled body movements at one of several venues in Cochin.
Getting there: Cochin International Airport is 29 kilometres away from the city centre from where buses and taxis are available. Trains and buses come in at Ernakulam and it’s easy to take an auto-rickshaw and then a ferry to the old town.
Getting around: Most of the attractions in the old city are within walking distance of one another.
Weather: The best times to visit are between October and February when the weather is mild and pleasant.
Designed by Swiss architect Le Corbusier, Chandigarh in Northern India is distinctive for its modern grid layout, which is unlike any other city in the country. Located 250 kilometres from New Delhi, its wide boulevards, lakes, and sprawling gardens provide plenty of leisure space for its growing population. Although rarely visited by foreign tourists, it’s worth a stop to explore Nek Chand’s Rock Garden, a surreal wonderland of weird and wonderful sculptures made from junk.Kick-start your day with a delicious breakfast at the Hedgehog Café in Sector 7. Not only is the food good, but it’s a booklover’s paradise, which looks more like a library than an eatery. The items on the menu are imaginatively named and the ambience is chilled.
After breakfast, dip into the Government Museum and Art Gallery in Sector 10. The modernist building was designed by Corbusier and contains a diverse collection of both contemporary and ancient art. One of the highlights is a display of Rajasthani miniature paintings.Next, take a stroll around serene Sukhna Lake, which is situated at the foot of the Shivalik Hills in Sector 6. Sit on the banks and take in the view or hire a colourful swan boat. It’s a great area for birdwatching and it’s easy to spot cranes, storks, and ducks. Afterwards, head for Leisure Valley, a series of themed gardens, which include Asia’s largest rose garden as well as spaces dedicated to hibiscus, bougainvillaea, and other flowering plants.
Chandigarh’s main attraction is undoubtedly the Rock Garden, which was created secretly on waste ground by council worker Nek Chand. He had been working on it for fifteen years before it was discovered, and it has since become a national treasure. Explore the 25-acre garden and its waterfalls, amphitheatre, and 2,000 colourful sculptures which have been created from pots, pans, crockery, broken bathroom fittings, and all manner of discarded junk.After a day exploring Chandigarh, head to Saffron at J.W. Marriott, one of the city’s finest restaurants. Using locally-sourced ingredients, Saffron serves North Indian cuisine and offers both meat and veggie options cooked on tandoori and charcoal grills.
Getting there: Chandigarh is four-five hours from Delhi by bus or taxi. The airport is 11 kilometres from the city and is connected to all major Indian cities.
Getting around: Uber, taxi, auto-rickshaw, and public bus are the most convenient ways to get around Chandigarh.
Weather: The temperatures are at their most moderate after the monsoons from August to November when the days are around 30-plus degrees Celsius.